Ustad and the Shrimp King
I bumped into my old college chum Minocher the other day at a coffee shop, and to celebrate the reunion after thirty-three years, we decided to meet the next day and increase the revenue of old Bandu Khan by having a dinner at the place. When I went to pick him up from his apartment, I found Minoo shrouded in a cloud of cigarette smoke – he was obviously on a spree. On closer observation, he looked like someone about to sink in quicksand.
“Well, what’s wrong with you, Minoo? You look like a withered pumpkin.” I asked, shaking him by the shoulder. “Look outside. It’s such a beautiful day; birds are still chirping.”
“Never liked birds, particularly when they are chirping. They remind me of my uncle Pest eating his soup. You ask me what is wrong? Everything! My world has collapsed. Disaster stares me in the face."
“Will you be a little more specific?”
“You know Rafiq, I am a writer and my uncle, a pest, wants to put a full stop on my writing career.”
“Abbreviate his name. Call him Pest. This morning he called me and ordered me to work at his fishery as a clerk and smell the stinking fish and shrimps from nine to five. Unless I do that he has threatened to stop financing my dream project of launching a Writer’s Club House. You know, on his assurance I have rented a space and placed an order for ten state-of – the- art computers, furniture and other items. Where am I going to raise money to pay the suppliers if he stops funding? Creditors would catch my throat and pluck the tonsils out.”
“A grave situation,” I agreed. I tried to tax my brains, but no idea other than robbing a bank came to me. I told him so and he grunted. Suddenly, I remembered Ustad Bilgrami (Ustad means teacher or mentor.)
“Ustad Bilgrami can help you,” I almost shouted.
“Ustad Bilgrami? That college sports coach? Well, he used to guide and help us come out of bad situations, but now he must be old, foggy and bed-ridden. What can he do?”
"You underrate this guy. He is still full of energy and his charisma is there, though he has lost all the hair on his head. His brain has as many gray cells as there are in Jeeves’ brain. Maybe because he eats a lot of fish, that is when he is not gulping glasses of lassi (a refreshing drink made from yogurt) that he has retained his super brain-power.”
A glimmer of light shone over Minoo’s face. “Can we contact him?” he asked anxiously.
“Sure we can,” I said, picking up the receiver and dialing Ustad’s number. When he came on line, I blurted out, “Ustad, we desperately need your help. Can you meet us ASAP, at a place convenient for you?"
"Hey! What’s the problem?”
“It concerns Minocher, my college friend, the one whose googliess (tricky balls delivered in the game of Cricket) baffles even the best of batsmen.”
“Oh, yes, I remember that boy,” said Ustad after a moment’s pause. “The fellow whose sister made you fall for her like a ton of bricks. Your seventh unsuccessful love affair I think. But what ails him?”
I marveled, and at the same time cursed his memory, for he never missed an opportunity to dig into my past and remind me of some embarrassing thing I did in those days. “The problem cannot be discussed on phone. Could we meet somewhere?”
“Can you guys meet me at Dilbahar’s Lassi Shop at Burns Road in about an hour? Lassi there is simply delicious. They always put a layer of butter at the top.”
Ustad Bilgrami was already at the shop, enjoying his lassi when we arrived there. He hugged Minocher affectionately and expressed his delight at seeing him again after more than three decades. “Still delivering googlies?” he asked.
“I am a writer now,” said Minoo.
“Writer? How can you survive?”
“That’s beside the point, Ustad,” I interrupted. “Minoo here is facing a dreadful situation, and unless something is done for him he is doomed.”
“Tell me all about it,” said Ustad, finishing his second glass of lassi.
I explained the whole scenario, while Minoo produced strange sounds from his throat.“Your uncle Behram Sohrab Pestonjee, often called Shrimp King by the Press, needs some Bilgrami bashing. I shall be too glad to take you out of the situation and see that you get your cheques regularly. Besides, I have to settle an old score with him.”
We looked at him in surprise. “A long time ago there was a fish-eating competition. Pestonjee and I were the finalists. I could take only twenty-two pieces of fish, while he thrust down his throat twenty-three pieces and still looked hungry. He beat me! Can you imagine Bilgrami, being defeated? Now give me a few minutes to think out a scheme.”
After some fifteen minutes he announced, “The fact that Minoo is a writer will be of great help to me to successfully carry out my scheme. I’ll call Pestonjee and schedule a meeting with him. I’ll pose as an expert on dried fish and shrimps, while you will pose as a would-be importer of his products in USA.”
A couple of days later, we were on our way to Pestonjee and Sons Fishery near Port Qasim. The nauseating smell of dried or rotten fish was getting stronger as we approached his place.
Behram Sohrab Pestonjee was an enormous man if you overlook the height and concentrate on width. Hair, instead of being on his head, was on his eyebrows and coming out of his ears. He had a pencil-thin moustache over his thick upper lip and the muscles of his belly were struggling to knock out buttons off his shirt. He greeted us with a forced smile and immediately took us on a tour of his fishery, showing us the ground where an enormous quantity of fish was left to dry under the sun, then he took us to a large room where shrimps were being graded. There was another room at the back where low-grade fish were being grinded to obtain medicinally useful powder. The smell was making me more and more nauseated, while Ustad appeared as if he was in a rose garden.
Coming back to his office, Ustad discussed some terms and conditions with Pestonjee and said, “Our friend Rafiq is interested in importing large quantities of your products every month, but he will have to consult his business partners in Chicago before a decision is taken. There is something else of immense importance that I have to discuss with you.”
Pestonjee’s bushy eyebrows twisted into an inquiring arch.
“It’s about Minocher, your nephew.”
“Minocher? That good-for-nothing chap, who just writes and writes and churns out useless stuff? Where does he come into the picture?”
“He does! I agree he writes a lot of trash, like for instance last week he wrote an article, Employers are like Mules, but now he has come up with a very interesting book to be published soon. I have read the manuscript. It’s a literary gem. It is titled Uncle P- Topsy Turvy. In the book he has revealed all the idiotic things this Uncle P did in the past, like picking up cigarette butts from the ground and smoking them, stealing chicken from the neighbor’s yard and putting coarse blankets with threads like needles underneath the bed sheets of guests in the house and so on. Now, you can fairly make out who this Uncle P is.”
Color from Pestonjee’s face seemed to fade off and for the first time I saw him getting fidgety. “Minocher, writing a book about me! Ungrateful brat! Anyway, who is going to publish it?”
"Believe me, there are two publishing houses after him for the manuscript. Minoo intends to give the rights to the highest bidder.”
Pestonjee made a noise as if he was gargling. “Bilgrami, for Heaven’s sake, please stop him from doing that. I don’t want my name to be maligned.”
“I can make him put the manuscript into cold storage or even burn it only on the condition that you continue to finance his dream project of establishing a Writer’s Club House, which will have, besides a classroom with modern computers for new writers, a smoking lounge, a cafeteria and a seminar hall.”
Pestonjee thought only for a moment and said, “Yes, yes. Tell him to see my accountant in the morning and take his pending cheque.”
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Bilgrami. “And don’t make him work at your fishery. The smell is not at all conducive for creative writing; it badly offends a sensitive writer like Minoo.”
“Certainly not. I don’t want him here.”
“Good decision! Now just let me read the minutes of today’s meeting. Rafiq will decide to import your fish and shrimps after discussing the matter with his cigar-smoking business partners. Minocher will get his cheque in the morning, and continue to get similar cheques till his project is completed. After that he won’t need any funds, because he would be minting money.”
Pestonjee nodded reluctantly, wiped the sweat off his forehead, and then said as an after-thought. “But how can I be sure that he wouldn’t publish that book in future?”
“Oh, come on Pestonjee. Nobody kills a goose that lays golden eggs?”
I kept looking open-mouthed at Ustad as we came out. “Sheer genius! You really are an indispensible Master!”
At Minocher’s home when we broke the good news to him; he jumped at least four feet up in the air, disturbing and scaring away a couple of birds outside the window who were contemplating to mate.
“Be sure to serve fried fish and lassi in the cafeteria of your dream project,” said Ustad to Minocher.
“Anything for you, Ustad,” said Minoo, bowing his head.
Rafiq Ebrahim is a freelance writer and novelist. He has written three novels: Glowing Embers, Advertising, and The Other Side. The latest – Beyond the Crumbling Heights (Colors in the life of a Pakistani slum boy) — was published in USA in 2009 and is available at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and google.com/books. He has written for Potluck before.